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Last Updated:3/10/02
Relevant excerpts from transcript, hearing of Senate Armed Services Committee, March 5, 2002

SEN LEVIN: ...In Southern Command we need to discuss, among other issues, the implications of President Pastrana's recent decision to end the safe zone of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC, on the stability of the Colombian government; whether the existing limitations on the U.S.-trained counter-drug brigade should be maintained; and whether future U.S. assistance to the Colombian military should be geared towards counterinsurgency capabilities. General Speer has also recently taken on the mission of running the camp for detainees at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

...And of course SOUTHCOM -- you are carrying on in the stead of a very fine officer who now sees the Senate quite often -- he's one of the principal briefers -- General Pace -- for the secretary of Defense to the Senate and the House, and he has handled it very commendably. But Colombia is a major concern to this committee, and we look forward to your comments on that today. It is not an easy situation to address.


MAJOR GEN. GARY SPEER:
...Certainly for us, since 11 September, we too at SOUTHCOM have been focused on the global war on terrorism. While I cannot tell you that there are any confirmed links to al Qaeda originating from Latin America, I can tell you that in the tri-border area of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, there are individuals that have links to Hamas, Hezbollah, and al Gamat. They are terrorist supporters in that they provide the resources and funnel funds back to those organizations. Elsewhere in the theater, there are several domestic groups which exact terror on the population through extortion, kidnaping and other acts of violence.

And certainly as we look to Colombia, I'm proud to tell you that we are doing a great job in executing the Department of Defense's role in supporting Plan Colombia. But certainly, as mentioned earlier,

President Pastrana's elimination of despeje on 20 February changes the landscape in that country.

The Colombian military has done a good job in protecting civilians as they move to reoccupy the population centers of the despeje. But as we look to the future, the Colombian military and the Colombian police lack the resources to fully reestablish a safe and secure environment throughout the countryside.

The United States Southern Command, as we continue to look at these challenges, we will continue with a very comprehensive security cooperation plan aimed at every country in the AOR. But, some of our regional militaries and security forces lack the capabilities for fully safeguard their borders against these transnational threats, much less to be a full participant in regional security cooperation.

For example, over the last decade, security assistance through foreign military financing has been insufficient to even satisfy the sustainment requirements for the aircraft and the equipment that the United States has provided, much less to address legitimate modernization needs throughout the region and much less new initiatives that respond to changing challenges.


SEN. REED: Thank you, General Schwartz.

...General Speer, the situation in Colombia has deteriorated rapidly in the last few weeks. Your assessment from a military standpoint -- do the various insurgent groups, particularly the FARC, have the capability of destabilizing the government of Colombia, in the sense that it could stop effectively functioning, protecting its people, and open up Colombia to exploitation by international forces or other non- Colombians?

GEN. SPEER: Thank you, senator. I would submit that the activities of the FARC, the ELN and the illegal paramilitaries have already seriously created an environment of instability. I mean, the fact is in Colombia today you often hear people cite statistics that the FARC controls so much of the countryside. The real issue is the government of Colombia, through its security forces, the police and the military, do not control portions of the country. And in the areas that they are not present and don't have control, there is a lack of a safe and secure environment, which basically undermines everything to do with governance in Colombia.

SEN. REED: Also with respect to Colombia, it's a fairly substantial piece of territory. And does the current Colombian army have sufficient end strength, manpower, to effectively exert control over large parts of the country?

GEN. SPEER: It's my assessment that the current force structure and the resources available to the Colombian military are inadequate to establish a safe and secure environment.

SEN. REED: So there are things that Colombia must do. And then what is your recommendation with respect to the United States participation?

GEN. SPEER: Well first of all, still in terms of the authorities that we have, our interaction with the Colombian military is still only in support of counter-drug operations. The administration has proposed to the Congress two follow-on initiatives. One would be to create a second counter-drug brigade, and pattern the success of the first counter-drug brigade in the south, but it would still be counter-drug support. The second initiative is to provide training and equipping assistance to infrastructure security units centered around Arauca, which is the heart of the pipeline area. This would be a break and a step beyond support in a counter-drug only context.

As a minimum, the Colombian military needs additional resources -- whether that's provided through security assistance. And I would submit that if you look at the first counter-drug brigade, it's probably the best train-and-equip brigade in the Colombian army. It's a model that can be applied elsewhere. Thanks very much. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.


SEN. SESSIONS: ....General Speer, I would just say just in closing that I think we've got to change our focus in Colombia. I've never felt that to focus solely on narcotics was a wise policy. I believe President Pastrana has now given peace every possible chance. He's now made a decision I think we need to support, which is he's got to take back his country. And I don't know how we can ever expect narcotics to be -- Colombia to stop the importation of narcotics into the United States if they don't control their territory. Once Colombia is reunited and is a healthy country, I think we can demand some things with regard to narcotics that we can't do now.

SEN. LEVIN: General Speer, there has been some discussion here this morning about Colombia, and I want to just ask a couple of related questions. The Colombia government reported last week that the amount of coca under cultivation had been reduced as a result of Plan Colombia and its eradication campaign. But according to some media accounts, the CIA estimates that coca cultivation is either stable or slightly greater than last year.

Can you give us your assessment of how effective Plan Colombia's eradication campaign has been over the last year?

GEN. SPEER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. What I'm not really prepared to do is enter the debate as to whether the government of Colombia's figures or the Counternarcotics Center's figures or the embassy's figures -- who has the right figures on whether it's more or less than last year, because frankly, I just don't know.

But what I can tell you is we've seen great progress in terms of DOD support to Plan Colombia. Since the time that you visited Colombia, I believe February of last year, we completed the training an equipping of the entire counternarcotics brigade. At that time, two battalions had been trained and the third battalion completed training in May of last year.

They have been operational since December of 2000. So in essence, in terms of operational results from Plan Colombia, we're just into the 14th month of what was designed as a six-year plan.

The counterdrug brigade has been very successful. Again, they're focused on the Putamayo and Caqueta regions of southern Colombia. They destroyed in excess of 860 labs, most of those being base labs as opposed to HCL labs. What they have been able to do in terms of the aerial eradication is the forces of the counterdrug brigade have provided the ground security which has allowed the Department of State aerial eradication operations to basically cover 59,000 hectares in southern Colombia. So at that snapshot, which was the focus of phase one of Plan Colombia, I think we have had some successes.

SEN. LEVIN: Now, you may have answered this question earlier today and I may have missed it, in which case, forgive me. But from a purely military perspective, do the limitations on our aid to counternarcotics activity make sense in a country whose government is under the kind of pressure that it is under from insurgencies and terrorist tactics, or have you recommended that that aid be broadened? I know Senator Sessions and others have made reference to this, but I'm not sure I've gotten a -- that I heard a clear answer. There may have been one, but I'm not sure I heard it.

GEN. SPEER: Again, to review the bidding, Mr. Chairman, policy- wise, my authorities have not changed, and what I can do is counterdrug-related only.

SEN. LEVIN: Have you recommend, though, it be broadened?

GEN. SPEER: Sir, my assessment is that the current level of support to the Colombian military is insufficient for the Colombian security forces to reestablish a safe and secure environment. And as you pointed out, for all of Plan Colombia to work, all of those non- military elements -- judicial reform, social development, alternative development -- all the elements of governance to be reestablished, up front you've got to have a safe and secure environment, and the current level of support would not do that.

SEN. LEVIN: Does that mean that you've taken the next step and made a recommendation that our aid restrictions be lifted so that we can have a broader target for the assistance?

GEN. SPEER: Sir, I have provided courses of action that would address either continued support within the current restrictions as well as what we could do beyond the current restrictions.

SEN. ROBERTS: I hope and pray that's the case. I would hope any talk of a time limit would not give any credence to the terrorists that they just wait this thing out, that that would be the case.

General Speer, you talked or you responded to a very good question by my colleague, Senator Reed, in regards to the proposal of the United States to provide military training for a brigade of Colombians to defend their infrastructure, such as dams and bridges and pipelines, and that this would be a shift from the current assistance program that we have. How many -- what are we talking about, including the number of U.S. personnel you believe would be required to provide this kind of training? And then I think in connection with that the possibility of a growing terrorist threat in regards to the instability that we see in that country -- and would that apply to the pipeline, and obviously to the infrastructure?

GEN. SPEER: Thank you, senator. The current proposal is only for protection of that specific pipeline that centers on Arauca. We anticipate that the training requirements for the 5th Mobile Brigade and the 18th Brigade, which have responsibility for the pipeline -- in this case it's a matter of enhancing the training of existing units, unlike the situation with the first counternarcotics brigade, which was basically building a unit from scratch -- forming a unit and taking it, if you will, from basic training all the way up to an operational capability. And we think that the resources required in terms of manpower to do those tasks would be no greater than it was in the first CD brigade; so, in other words, no significant increase to the footprint, and probably stay within the mandated numbers -- even though this is not a counter-drug mission.



SEN. SESSIONS: That's what I believe is accurate. And it's a sad thing. My time is up.

General Speer, I would just say just in closing that I think we've got to change our focus in Colombia. I've never felt that to focus solely on narcotics was a wise policy. I believe President Pastrana has now given peace every possible chance. He's now made a decision I think we need to support, which is he's got to take back his country. And I don't know how we can ever expect narcotics to be -- Colombia to stop the importation of narcotics into the United States if they don't control their territory. Once Colombia is reunited and is a healthy country, I think we can demand some things with regard to narcotics that we can't do now.

SEN. LEVIN: General Speer, there has been some discussion here this morning about Colombia, and I want to just ask a couple of related questions. The Colombia government reported last week that the amount of coca under cultivation had been reduced as a result of Plan Colombia and its eradication campaign. But according to some media accounts, the CIA estimates that coca cultivation is either stable or slightly greater than last year.

Can you give us your assessment of how effective Plan Colombia's eradication campaign has been over the last year?

GEN. SPEER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. What I'm not really prepared to do is enter the debate as to whether the government of Colombia's figures or the Counternarcotics Center's figures or the embassy's figures -- who has the right figures on whether it's more or less than last year, because frankly, I just don't know.

But what I can tell you is we've seen great progress in terms of DOD support to Plan Colombia. Since the time that you visited Colombia, I believe February of last year, we completed the training an equipping of the entire counternarcotics brigade. At that time, two battalions had been trained and the third battalion completed training in May of last year.

They have been operational since December of 2000. So in essence, in terms of operational results from Plan Colombia, we're just into the 14th month of what was designed as a six-year plan.

The counterdrug brigade has been very successful. Again, they're focused on the Putamayo and Caqueta regions of southern Colombia. They destroyed in excess of 860 labs, most of those being base labs as opposed to HCL labs. What they have been able to do in terms of the aerial eradication is the forces of the counterdrug brigade have provided the ground security which has allowed the Department of State aerial eradication operations to basically cover 59,000 hectares in southern Colombia. So at that snapshot, which was the focus of phase one of Plan Colombia, I think we have had some successes.


GEN. SPEER: Certainly, Senator, as I stated in my written statement, from a military perspective, it was the right thing to do. We've seen in the open press, just over the weekend, an interview with one of the FARC commanders. I'm sorry, I don't recall the name in the press.

But, in essence, it was kind of an admission that the FARC had used the peace process as nothing more than an effort to buy time, to restock their forces, to provide for training, rest and recuperation, and basically to prepare to take the campaign back against the people of Colombia, and, in essence, admitted that there never was any real negotiations in terms of negotiating in good faith on the part of the FARC.

SEN. SESSIONS: Well, that's what it's appeared to me to be, and I appreciate that. And isn't it classical military-political theory that under these circumstances, the only real hope for a legitimate peace process is to get the other side on the defensive militarily? Isn't that generally, if you have peace negotiations, that's when it occurs?

GEN. SPEER: Yes, sir. I think that as long as the FARC enjoy the protection of the despeje -- in other words, the safe haven -- an area that both the Colombian military and the Colombian police were denied access -- in other words, the FARC had free rein -- they really -- as long as they could string that out, they had no real reason to resolve it.

What we've also seen -- and this gets back to some of the reporting coming out on the coca cultivation -- one thing that there's general consensus is that the coca cultivation inside the safe haven drastically increased over the last year.

SEN. SESSIONS: Well, I think that's the grim truth of it. We wish it weren't so. We wish we could avoid taking this bitter pill. But the people of Colombia -- it's 40 million people. They're a democracy. They've been allies of the United States. They're good trading partners with the United States.

Wouldn't you say that this situation now is at a critical stage, that President Pastrana and the leadership in Colombia have made a new and historic commitment to taking back their territory and unifying their country as a democracy?

GEN. SPEER: Senator, certainly President Pastrana gambled his entire administration on this peace process. That's the campaign platform that he was elected on. And everything that he had done up until the 20th of February had been aimed in that direction.

But even after his 11th-hour extension of the despeje on the 20th of January, after the international community was involved in leveraging or at least brokering an extension in terms of an agreement, between the 30 days that followed and his ultimate decision to suspend the despeje, there were in excess of 100 terrorist acts by the FARC. So the FARC certainly had some very strange negotiating tactics in a peace process.

The fact is, the Colombian security forces, as I stated, both the police and the military, lack the resources today to re-establish a safe and secure environment.

Now, those resources, as alluded to, to some degree that's a responsibility of the government of Colombia; because the other thing we have not seen is increases in terms of funding and support from the government of Colombia's own budget to the Colombian military, even as a result of this latest action.

SEN. SESSIONS: It does appear now, does it not, that the polls show a growing majority? What does it show in support for the Colombian people for fighting the terrorists?

GEN. SPEER: Senator, I am not aware of what the latest figures are, but there is an overwhelming majority. The trend line from January to this date to support Pastrana's action to discontinue the despeje. And if you use the other measure, which is to take a look at the upcoming presidential election, the presidential candidate Uribe, who is the more hard-line candidate in terms of the actions that he proposes to take against the FARC -- certainly in January his popularity pushed him to the lead of the campaign. And even since the Pastrana's decision to discontinue the despeje he has gained in popularity based on the polls. So that would indicate there is genuine public support for this action.

SEN. SESSIONS: And I assume part of his platform is to expand the defense budget and strengthen the military?

GEN. SPEER: Sir, I'm not conversant on what his actual campaign platform is.

SEN. SESSIONS: Well, I remember talking to President Pastrana several years ago, and gave him my opinion, which I am sure he thought not worth much, that the peace process probably would not work, and ultimately he was going to have to be an Abraham Lincoln -- he was going to have to unify his country through military force. And Lincoln wasn't prepared to do it the first year. It took him a long time -- but he succeeded. You know, shouldn't we be helping these people of Colombia? They are a democracy. They have been patient. They have tried every possible peace process. They are good allies of ours. They are fighting against communists. They are fighting against kidnappers, terrorists, people who are drug dealers, and furthering the drug industry that we oppose. Shouldn't we be on the right side of this battle?

GEN. SPEER: Sir, Colombia is important to the United States, for all the reasons you just said. It's certainly the second oldest democracy in the hemisphere, second only to the United States. The criticality of Colombia is that it is the linchpin in the Andean region, and it's critical for the United States that Colombia survive this democracy, and it can reestablish security, because without that it will only grow throughout the region. So Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador are certainly at risk to some degree based on what happens in Colombia.

SEN. SESSIONS: Well said. I think that is an important point to make. And it really troubles me and causes me some concern. I remember about two or three years ago we had President Clinton's ambassador here, Ambassador Pickering, who testified -- and I asked him when he stated flatly our only emphasis in Colombia is anti-drugs -- and I said, Sir, are we on the side of the democratic government of Colombia and against the communist insurgents or not? And he repeated, Our only mission in Colombia is counternarcotics. Has anything changed?

GEN. SPEER: I am not sure of the exact words that Secretary Powell used, but I was with Undersecretary Grossman in Colombia the first of last month, and in the session -- the press conference that he gave following our meetings with President Pastrana and the foreign minister and the minister of defense and the military leadership -- our support to Colombia at that time -- now, this is pre-the Pastrana decision -- was characterized as still focused on counter-drugs. But the wording was not exclusively, because of again the proposal for the pipeline security.

SEN. SESSIONS: Well, I would add I think it's time to switch. I think we need to support the government, help it reestablish its control over its territory; and then we can deal better with the narcotics problem under those circumstances. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

SEN. LEVIN: Thank you, Senator Sessions. Senator Nelson.

SEN. BEN NELSON (D-FL): General Speer, would you comment on your observations on Venezuela?

GEN. SPEER: Unfortunately, you missed the other -- let me see if I can recapture most of it. We are very concerned about President Chavez. Your guess as to what direction Chavez is taking Venezuela is as good as mine or anybody else's. What we do know is he is experiencing a severe deterioration in terms of popularity. It's time where his promises haven't yielded deliveries. I mentioned that the FARC operates at will across the border into Venezuela. There are arms shipments originating in Venezuela that get to the FARC and the ELN. We have been unable to firmly establish a link to the Chavez government, but it certainly causes us suspicions. The company that Chavez keeps around the world, although under the guise of OPEC, certainly causes additional concerns as well.

SEN. BEN NELSON (D-FL): Mr. Chairman, it's -- I don't know if it's symbolic or symptomatic or what-not, but clearly the interests of the United States was served so well when all the countries of Latin America basically were democracies. And now we see a disturbing trend in a number of those countries that are moving away from democracy. So you know at some point it might do well for some of us to get together with maybe the Foreign Relations Committee in talking about the future of Latin America and what more in addition we should be doing, with what Jeff had raised, on the drug fighting down there, in order to shore up these additional democracies.

When you and I went to Colombia, we had a sobering sense of reality that if we were able to stamp out the coca-growing in the south, it could pop up right across the border in either one of those other countries, Ecuador or Brazil. So I'd like to get my hands around that a little more as to what's in the future interests of the United States. And here we've got right across from Colombia we have got a problem in Venezuela. So I don't know the answers, but I am sure going to be answering some questions.

SEN. LEVIN: That's an important point, Senator Nelson, and I think we ought to talk to Senator Biden and see if there is some joint work that our committees can do. As you point out, the coca problem is not just because other places can grow it, but other places in Colombia apparently have grown it. You have indicated the safe haven area has increased its production, which may have made up for the destruction in areas where we have sprayed. So without even getting into the numbers, or even knowing the exact numbers, I think we have faced that possibility too, which reinforces the point about the importance of the government being strong enough to go after not just the counterinsurgencies but also after the paramilitaries as well. At any rate, I don't want to interrupt you, but I agree with your...

SEN. LEVIN: Senator Nelson, thank you.

Just a couple of questions finally from me. First, General Speer, the Colombian military's record with respect to human rights in collaboration with the paramilitary groups has been a major factor in Congress's attitude about assistance to the Colombian military. In your formal statement you said the following, quote, "We've witnessed a steady improvement in the professionalism and respect for human rights by the Colombian military accompanied by increased effectiveness in counter-drug operations."

And you also stated that, quote, "In a short period of time, the Colombian military has emerged as one of the most respected and trusted organizations in Colombian society. Less than three percent of complaints of human rights abuses last year were attributed to the Colombian security services, down from a high of 60 percent just a few years ago. The Colombian military," you said, "have also aggressively stepped up operations against the AUC," which are the paramilitaries. "This progress reflects a strong and principled leadership and the genuine desire of the Colombian military to honor and promote democratic principles in their country." Close quote. And, finally, there have been no allegations of human rights abuses against the counter-drug brigade.

I think if we're going to consider -- if Congress is going to look at broadening the mandate in terms of our aid, and the recipients in terms of our aid, and the purpose of that aid, it's essential that the Congress, my colleagues, believe that testimony. And so anything you can do to give examples to flesh out that testimony, to give support to your beliefs there, I think will help in terms of whether or not we're going to continue to restrict aid just to the counter- drug effort, or whether we're going to broaden it to try to support that democratic government down there, which is elected democratically, which has plenty of problems on its hands, which it needs, and I believe deserves our support.

So, they're connected is my point here, and the linkages between, for instance, the Colombian military and the paramilitary have been very destructive in terms of confidence of Congress in the military down in Colombia. On our visit, I think we saw surely an effort on the part of the leadership, at least, of the Colombian military to break those linkages which exist at the grassroots level.

But, anyway, your -- your testimony is very much on point and on target in that regard, and it's essential, again, that Congress reach that conclusion, I think, if we're going to broaden the purpose of the aid. That's not a question, just a comment. I'd welcome any reaction, but -- if you'd like.

MAJOR GEN. SPEER: Sir, the only thing, just to amplify, I am convinced that the military leadership in Colombia is firmly committed to setting the record straight in terms of taking action to any reports of wrongdoing. They have suspended officers and noncommissioned officers for acts of wrongdoing. They certainly have stepped up their operations against the paramilitaries, the illegal paramilitaries. In fact, General Tapias has told me that he views the paramilitaries as the long-term threat that they've got to deal with, more so than the FARC, just in terms of the effectiveness.

So, their real challenge is that the government of Colombia and the Colombian military need to tell the story about what they are doing, and take credit for the accomplishments that they have attained, and they've been unable to do that at this point.

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